Jesus beautifully summarized the law for us in Matthew 22:37-39, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” This commandment to love is not a request, but a requirement of our Lord. I have read this passage over and over, thought about it many many times. I have wondered at its application, knowing its beyond my own strength and will.
The Different Meanings of Love
Love in our society has many meanings. When I was younger I thought primarily of romantic love, being overwhelmed in my senses and my emotions with this tremendous feeling. I didn’t think falling in love had too much to do with me, my actions, my thoughts, rather it was something that happened, a mystical thing. There was also the love that I already had for family and friends, this love had either always been there, a constant force in my life, or commitment that had grown over time as a friend and I grew closer. These loves had strong elements of loyalty and commitment, but less of passion or a feeling of being overwhelmed. Which of these kinds of love is God looking for in this passage? My modern understanding that there are different kinds of love reflects ancient ideas where they had actual words to reflect these ideas. Romantic love was called eros, brotherly love or affection was called phileo and there was yet another kind of love, a deep sacrificial kind of love, called agape. This is the kind of love that Jesus felt for us and that led him to the cross. This is the kind of love described in 1Cor 13.
Consider the story of Jesus and Peter meeting up after Jesus’ resurrection, this meeting gives some insight into agape love. The story in English is a little bit odd because we don’t have these different forms of the word, love. In English it has Jesus asking Peter three times if he loved him and Peter answering three times that he did. But in Greek, Jesus asks twice, do you love me with agape love, and Peter answers that he loves (only) with phileo love. At the end Jesus accepts this brotherly love, but goes on to prophesy that Peter will die in Jesus’ service. Indeed Peter would come to have a sacrificial, totally committed love, even though it was not in place at that moment. Jesus accepted Peter where he was at, but knew that growth and change would happen over the course of an obedient committed life.